Language as Responsibility, by Leonard Schwartz

Language as Responsibility
Chapbook by Leonard Schwartz
TinFish Press, 2007
Design by Lian Lederman
Hand-sewn binding
34 pages
ISBN10: 978-0-9789929-0-3
ISBN13: 0-9789929-0-3

Reviewed by Josh Maday

Leonard Schwartz describes Language as Responsibility as an “exercise in poetics, in which contemporary Israeli, Levantine, and Jewish-American texts are asked to speak to one another” where “Responsibility [is] the ability to respond.” Schwartz’s chapbook is divided into three parts, namely, interview (with a poet), an essay on the poetics of publishing, and an essay in the form of a poem, but Language as Responsibility essentially reflects the “endless co-mingling” of language and life—despite all efforts against it—among cultures with supposedly qualitative differences. With what we see and hear reported about the Middle East conflict, Schwartz’s project, while certainly denouncing terror and acknowledging suffering, ultimately stands apart in its optimism for better days, maybe even peace.

Language as Responsibility opens with a transcription of Schwartz’s interview with Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai on Schwartz’s radio show Cross-Cultural Poetics. We are reminded that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not, as it is so often portrayed by mainstream American media, black and white, but is gray, rather like the paper on which Schwartz’s chapbook is printed.

According to Wikipedia, Shabtai has been criticized for his refusal to continue writing in any one particular style or voice, of resisting the either/or dichotomy and the pressure to stick with one form, but opting instead to move within the gray of multiple expressive forms, as a way of mirroring real life. Schwartz ties this in with the notion of “The Levant” as defined in the second part of the exercise, his essay “Ibis”:

A poetics of the Middle East, or a poetics of “The Levant,” that older and broader geographical term, from “levare” (to raise) applied to the East for the rising of the sun? Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, French, Aramaic, Ladino, and Greek all figure, among others, as the rising sun’s languages, a list which bespeaks an endless co-mingling, parallel conversation, cross conversation, and confusion . . .

Here Schwartz, a Jewish-American, continues and elaborates on Shabtai’s demythologizing of the Middle East Conflict: “For ‘The Middle East,’ a modern political term, is most associated for us [Americans] with political realities far less polyglot, where languages and those that speak them i.e. with one another, and often kill each other, as opposed to speaking or assuming their place in the collage.” For Schwartz, a large part of the American failure of “response-ability” is the publishing industry’s woeful ignorance of translated work (see 2008 Nobel Prize controversy HERE). However, he focuses on one example of a publisher doing its part to counter this ignorance—Ibis Editions, based in Jerusalem, Israel:

Since 1998 Ibis has published ten books in English translation that in their unlikely juxtapositioning provide a glimpse into a Levantine reality that offers something other than the images from Baghdad we see televised for our benefit on a daily basis: explosions, technical gadgetry, the eclipsing of one flag by another, war as the basic standard of communication and expression. For the very reason that English is the triumphant language on the world stage—as well as the language hijacked by the warmongers in the Bush administration—these Ibis juxtapositions become crucial.

The third part of this exercise in poetics is a poem by Schwartz that reflects the way he, as a Jewish-American, embodies the entirety of this endless conflict, seeing from all sides as humanity tears itself apart for denying its response-ability to the speech of the other.

7) Helicopters empty their fire, tanks roll, writers write,
as Jenin takes place, echoing Shatila.
From the Negev to New York
my tribe is going mad.
In my distress, I call upon a Lord
I don’t believe in (7)
But the Jewish Arab
from Baghdad, writing in a language
his new land despises
dreams for seven nights
is real . . .

The very being of language
implies an other with whom to speak.
Language is always the other spoken to.

The first stanza above is the seventh number seven, and the seven in the stanza’s text, being the seventh (the number seven representing the number of God), demonstrates how saturated the cultures are with theology, which speaks to an earlier line (the fifth number seven: “7) geology is theology is fence”) and the suggestion of the time-hardened barrier that theological differences present. And even though Schwartz lives and works in America, he is not untouched by this deep conflict (“From the Negev to New York, / my tribe is going mad.”):

Memory passes into formal knowledge; knowledge begets
capacity and power; power permits forgetfulness.

[. . .]

Amongst all the atrocities
I shrug,
motoring in my new car
up the causeway, out past
Indulgence Farm – that robust enterprise-
far from the light of the little lighthouse
of First Anger.

Schwartz’s internal conflict is apparent. He expresses the entropic tendency toward forgetfulness when the actual suffering seems so far away, the attempts to shrug off the stinging awareness of the atrocities taking place. And yet, while that “First Anger” fades into memory into knowledge, where the power of distance allows one to detach and grow numb, he still cannot entirely forget. He cannot shrug his consciousness clean of concern.

Through his discussion of an Ibis edition of the poems of Ibn ‘Arabi, a 13th Century Arabic poet, Schwartz demonstrates how effectively this “juxtapositioning” can create rich unity out of diversity without any one viewpoint nullifying or subjugating the other. Ibn ‘Arabi wrote that “In every moment . . . the heart must change or the beloved is lost,” making Shabtai a modern day Ibn ‘Arabi, which should not be possible in the cut-and-dried world so often portrayed. Schwartz’s essay focuses on two books published by Ibis within three years, one a collection of ‘Arabi’s poems and the other a poetry collection by 20th Century Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem. “These two books offer a portal into the poetics of publishing as practiced by Americans in Jerusalem.” Schwartz shows how similar these two distant thinkers were; distant in time and culture, but certainly not in their common humanity and passionate concern with one’s relation with and responsibility to the beloved, the other. In Language as Responsibility, Schwartz weaves the often black-and-white points of view of this ostensibly impassable conflict into the vibrant gray fabric of humanity, proving that the foundation for peace already exists and merely awaits labor and material.


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